How can we get young people eating healthy food at lunchtime?

What’s your research about?

The factors that underpin young people’s food and drink purchases in and around schools.

The study, which was funded by Food Standards Scotland, looked at seven state secondary schools in Scotland, where pupils were allowed to leave the grounds at lunchtime. The schools were in five local education authority areas with varying degrees of relative deprivation.

What did you find?

Our research showed that for young people, the environment in which they spend their lunchtime is important, and school cafeterias often do not meet their needs for a “dining experience”.

It’s not really about the food – it’s also about how pleasant the place is and whether they can hang out with their friends. Young people are drawn towards food outlets in their school’s neighbourhood that treat them as valued consumers.

Specifically, we found that more than three quarters of 13 to 15-year-olds bought food or drink outside school at least twice a week, and often favoured cheap, fast, less healthy options than were available in school. Two thirds of those studied purchased food and drink from the cafeteria either only once a week or never at all.

What specific steps could schools take?

We really need to concentrate on the food and drink offered in schools, and the dining environment itself. Simply banning fast-food outlets near schools won’t be enough to bring about change. School cafeterias need to provide a better dining experience, and that involves consulting with young people.

A lot of schools still haven’t found the right way to ask young people how they want the dining areas developed. Some schools do it really well, and in those schools they have found ways of engaging young people.

When you get beyond the surface, they don’t actually want McDonalds – they want a break from the curriculum part of the day and to spend some time with their friends.

Often the dining rooms don’t meet the needs of the young people who want to eat there. If they get kicked out the minute they’ve eaten, it doesn’t help them want to stay in there.

School caterers can learn from retailers, to adjust their services to attract young people to school canteens in an attempt to encourage them to purchase healthier food and drink.

In our focus groups, they’re all sitting there crunching apples and eating grapes, and I say to them, “Why don’t you buy fruit at school?” and
they say, “Because it’s manky, horrible fruit, it’s not nice fresh crunchy apples that aren’t bruised.” It’s just little things. As adults, you wouldn’t buy fruit that wasn’t very nice.

It’s tough, though, as our findings show that teenagers are cynical when marketing “gimmicks” similar to those used on the high street are employed by schools.

One aspect of the retailer-pupil dynamic that may translate well would be for schools to build better relationships between teachers, catering staff and pupils so that young people are valued and listened to, as they are by retailers. Unlike the retailer-pupil relationship, however, such improvements in schools could be driven by a genuine desire to improve young people’s health and well-being.

While structural changes and investment are perhaps inevitable, the findings also suggest that pupils themselves can be mobilised to push for change regarding the food and drink sold to them at school.

How can people find out more?

Our full report, Food and drink purchasing by secondary school pupils: Beyond the school gate, can be downloaded from the Food Standards Scotland website. We’ve also made a short film, In or Out – A Slice of What we Eat, to share the key findings of the research, which is on the University of Hertfordshire’s YouTube channel.

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